The Travelin' McCoury's
Bluegrass is in their blood. The McCoury brothers, Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, were born into the bluegrass tradition: their father, Del, is among the most influential and successful musicians in the genre. Years on the road with dad in the Del McCoury Band honed their knife-edge chops and encouraged them to re-imagine bluegrass as it cut a new pathway into 21st-century music. “If you put your mind, your skills, and your ability to it, I think you can make just about anything work on bluegrass instruments,” Ronnie McCoury said. “That’s the really fun part of this: figuring the new stuff out and surprising the audience.”
The Nashville-bred McCoury brothers branched out, adding fiddler Jason Carter, bassist Alan Bartram, and later, guitar player Cody Kilby. This was a group that could take what was in the McCoury DNA, the traditions they’d learned and heard, and push the music forward. The band became the only group to have each of its members recognized with an International Bluegrass Music Association Award for his instrument at least once. Peers also recognized the unique qualities that made the bluegrass music of The Travelin’ McCourys both historic and progressive. Groups from the Allman Brothers to Phish to Keller Williams recognized the special qualities of the band’s music.
The Travelin’ McCourys played at the Allman Brothers’ Wanee Festival and at guitarist Warren Haynes’ Christmas jam, which has become an annual holiday homecoming for Southern music. An early-years jam with the Lee Boys was considered a highlight of the evening, and when the video caught fire online, they gained a legion of new, younger fans, captivated by their supercharged combination of steel, R & B and bluegrass. Collaborations with Dierks Bentley, String Cheese Incident and Phish followed and they created the Grateful Ball, a tribute concert tour that brought bluegrass and the music of the Grateful Dead together. For Ronnie McCoury, it’s all part of being McCoury. “That’s something that’s part of us being who we are,” he said. “It comes, too, with us plugging it. It gets louder, for sure. We can’t be another version of our dad’s band. It wouldn’t make any sense for us to do that.”
Travelin’ McCoury concerts became can’t-miss events, whether they were headlining historic venues or as festival favorites, gathering an ever-growing fan base that loved their eclectic repertoire. At the 2016 edition of DelFest, an annual gathering of bluegrass’ best and named for the family patriarch, the band delivered the take-away highlight, which Rolling Stone called “a sublime combination of rock and bluegrass, contemporary and classic, old and young. The best set of the festival.”
That was no reason for the band to rest on its laurels and it didn’t. “We’ve tried to pick songs we think people are going to enjoy,” Ronnie McCoury said.” Something we learned from our dad is that a good song is a good song. It can be done in any way.”
In 2018, the Travelin’ McCourys released a self-titled album. The 14-song collection reflects the band’s inventive style, great musicianship and plenty of burnin’ grass. It is a true culmination of their musical journey. While there are reflections of Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia, the sound is rooted and revolutionary, soulful and transcending, and unique to this band and this band alone. “This album definitely shows what we’ve evolved to as a band, and it’s a pretty good representation of what’s happening with the whole genre,” Rob McCoury said. “The old bluegrass material is something I love, but it’s been done many times. We’re forging ahead with our own sound. That’s what you have to do to make it all work.”
And make it all work, they do. The Travelin’ McCourys were honored by the International Bluegrass Music Association as the Instrumental Group of the Year and the album won a Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year. In 14 years, they’ve taken something old and made it new and something borrowed and made it bluegrass as you’ve never heard it.
The Travelin’ McCourys are on the ride of their lives and it’s changing bluegrass forever.